Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Long Game

Our most recent Encounter
You know that part in the movie when the moving van pulls in across the street and the kids sit in front of the window watching, hoping the van holds bikes and bunk beds and the possessions of kids their age? That was us last September when a family bought the store across the street from our house. One day, Chris walked in with the announcement: they have a 19 year old daughter who speaks English and wants to practice with us! This was in the early days when we were excited whenever someone wanted to spend more than five minutes with us. I poured myself into Sofia’s English classes. I analyzed her reading level, designed an appropriate curriculum, gave her homework and assessments. She had moved to the United States with her parents when she was 4. When she was 12 her parents divorced and she returned to Argentina with her mom and little brother. She missed the United States and loved talking with us about our home country. We visited her at her store often, went to her mom’s birthday party, even made pancakes with her in her home, but she refused to have anything to do with the church. Talking about God was difficult. The few times that she didn’t change the subject completely, we learned that her mother was very catholic, but that Sofia didn’t share her beliefs. She was a child living in the States during the various scandals of priests molesting children. Ten years later she still carried a deep mistrust for the church. Her mother had battled cancer a couple times and always prayed to the Virgin Mary for healing. In Sofia’s eyes, becoming too involved with us would be a betrayal to her mom’s beliefs. It was easier for her to not have any of her own beliefs than blatantly contradict her mom. This continued for months. We became closer and closer friends, but it felt like over time she was growing farther and farther from God. I’m ashamed now to think of how many times I wrote the situation off as hopeless. Sofia got a boyfriend, talked about moving back to the States with her father, the business had to close and they moved farther down the street. Every time we got together to hang out or practice English I felt like we were just spinning our wheels, wasting time on a lost cause.
Ashley was busy cooking more pancakes

Eating American pancakes

In March, Sofia went back to college. One of her classes was English. She asked us to help her study at her grandparents’ house down the street. Her mom and stepdad had moved to a different neighborhood, but Sofia was staying at her grandparents because of one too many disagreements with her stepdad. It was Sunday afternoon, and we were sitting in her grandpa’s kitchen eating crackers and pate. Her English lesson was a biography of Pope Francis. As we read through the discussion questions, she began to ask us her own questions; Does your church have a pope? What are your church leaders like? Where do you pray? She explained that her mom thinks she is an atheist because she doesn’t think priests and saints are more holy than other people. She also holds the “heretical” view that she can pray to God wherever she is, not just in church. I tried to listen quietly, compassionately, but I had to laugh. “Those aren't atheist beliefs,” I told her. “Those are Christian beliefs. That’s what the Bible teaches.” We were still in an English class, and at this point Sofia asked if she could speak in Spanish. She then emotionally, finally let loose. She was confused, wanting more of God and unsure where to find answers. We talked and prayed with her for a while before inviting her to eat dinner with us and the pastors later in the week. She did. Then she came to a house of prayer. Then a church service. She accepted God as Lord of her life and continued seeking what that meant. We asked her to be a part of the Encounter weekend. That’s when things really got crazy.

Sofia's first house of prayer
We had been planning for a short term team from Olivet University for a long time. We wanted to have a big event while they were here, but we didn't know who we wanted to preach at the event. The Church of the Nazarene in Cali, Colombia commits to sending two of their pastors to help each Extreme church plant run an Encounter weekend. We figured (ambitiously) that we would kill two birds with one stone by inviting the Colombian pastors to lead the Encounter weekend then preach in a big event with the short term team in the same week. How that all worked out is a different story, but it led to us holding the Encounter retreat in the church and inviting our church leaders to come help run the retreat and listen to the guest speakers. Since the participants would not be trapped in a hotel with us all weekend, we worried that some would come late or skip out on the second day. (People always enjoy and grow at the retreats, but the devil can be very sneaky in his distractions and excuses) To help avoid this problem, we assigned a "spiritual parent" to each participant who was responsible for picking them up and dropping them off at home in a taxi each day. A couple weeks before the Encounter, Sofia convinced her boyfriend, Andres, to go with her. Both were assigned to Laura as her spiritual children. Laura is one of Ashley and my disciples. Remembering that I am 28, Ashley 23, Laura 30, Andres 23, and Sofia 20, it was sooooo cool to see our disciple raising up Andres and Sofia as her disciples. She started to call them her kids, making us spiritual grandparents. That was a little weird, but it is amazing since it is the reason we are here and only one year ago none of them were even Christians. 

She came back!
Me, Sofia, Ashley, Laura
Andres had been attending houses of prayer with Sofia and completely committed his life to Christ during the Encounter. They both have a life of sin and hurt to process through and very Catholic mothers to live with, but they now have relationships with the Creator of the universe.

She came back with Andres!
Church service after the Encounter
After the Encounter, Sofia started working on her mom, Erica. They have a strained relationship, but Sofia was able to convince her to attend the big event and hear the Colombian pastor. They even brought Sofia's 12 year old brother, Jeffrey, and 4 year old sister, Bianca. They came, they left, and I didn't get to talk to them until the next day. Sofia and Andres came to church without Erica. Sofia said her mom hadn't talked to her since they left the event the night before. I figured it was at least a seed planted. On Tuesday, Sofia, an aspiring chef, prepared a delicious meal for the short term team for their last day in Argentina. Afterward, Erica came to help her pack up her supplies and take it back to the house. Pastora seized the opportunity to talk with her while we cleaned. Erica opened up and shared her heart with Pastora. They prayed together and Pastora invited her to the house of prayer the next day. She came with Jeffrey, Sofia, and Andres. At the beginning, I asked each person to tell what had been the best part of their week. Erica said the best part was going to the event on Saturday. She realized a lot of what she had believed was a lie and that God wanted to show her the truth. She had gone home that night and cried, confused about what she was feeling but ready for something new. Aside from the miracle in this hard heart, it was special to watch the incredulity on Sofia's face. She had no idea her mom had changed so much in three short days. God continues to blow us away with what He has prepared for His children. When we are patient in Him, we are never too patient. The long game has a prize at the end only He can imagine. 

She came back with her mom and little brother. Praise God!